As more and more moms courageously go public with their pregnancy losses, Parents shines a light on what it takes to open up and how this inspiring trend could change motherhood for the better—forever.
The December after our daughter turned 2 was happily frenetic, with my parents visiting from out of town and my husband and me playing Santa for the first time with a child old enough to be excited by presents. The day after Christmas, I got a gift myself: a positive pregnancy test. Soon after telling my husband, I shared the news with my mom and two of my friends. I had happy dreams about an early-September baby and buying a mother’s ring with my favorite gem—sapphire, September’s birthstone.
Five days later, I started to spot, and by that afternoon I was no longer pregnant. The baby I thought would be our second child was gone in an instant, along with the plans I now felt I was foolish to have made. It was a very early loss, but it still felt like the death of possibility for me, especially at age 37 with an irregular menstrual cycle. To make matters worse, I was also embarrassed. I’m a social psychologist who wrote a book on fertility. What was I thinking, telling my parents and friends that early? Why was I sad, when other women had miscarriages when they were much further along?
Those emotions were only compounded when I tried to talk to friends about my loss. “Don’t be sad,” some said. But I was. “You can try again,” said others. But I wanted this one. “At least you can get pregnant,” said still others. But I didn’t know if I’d be able to conceive again. At times I wondered if I should have simply kept the news to myself.
That was ten years ago. My loss occurred when Facebook was mostly for college kids, Instagram didn’t exist, and no one knew what a #rainbowbaby was. (If you’re in the dark, the term refers to a child who is born just after a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or an infant death and whose existence personifies the hope that can come out of grief.) Just as they always had, the vast majority of women then viewed pregnancy loss as a painful secret—and consequently, commiseration was scarce.
Today, as celebrities from Mark Zuckerberg to Beyoncé to Six’s Brianne Davis come forward with their losses, women across the nation are following suit in raw Facebook posts, heartfelt emails, group texts, and face-to-face conversations. And instead of suffering silently and solo, grieving women are finding one another.
We still have a long way to go: Two-thirds of women who’ve miscarried say they feel they can’t even talk to their best friend about it, according to a 2015 poll of 6,000 women conducted by Tommy’s, a miscarriage-research nonprofit in the United Kingdom. But the tide is undoubtedly turning on this taboo—and there are big and surprising implications for the health and well-being of women everywhere.
Shifting the Blame
Historians have found seeds of miscarriage stigma that date as far back as the Middle Ages when a woman’s failure to provide a male heir was a deep source of shame. “It was her marital duty to give birth to a son who could take over the farm or the shop and bring in a fortune through his bride’s dowry,” explains Edward Shorter, Ph.D., a social historian of medicine at the University of Toronto. “The miscarriage stigma was largely an economic one.” What’s more, because the reasons for miscarriage were a medical mystery until fairly recently, mothers were always considered to be the problem. Back in the 1500s, English physician Thomas Reynalde wrote that dancing or leaping; feeling angry, sad, or suddenly joyful; and spending too much time in the cold air could all lead to “aborsement,” the 16th-century word for pregnancy loss.
A shocking 41 percent of men and women who had experienced a miscarriage (either themselves or their partner) felt they had done something wrong. In reality, miscarriages are almost always caused by factors that are outside of the mother’s control—most commonly, genetic abnormalities in the embryo.
These misconceptions have a direct psychological impact on grieving mothers. Studies have shown that pregnancy loss can be traumatizing, isolating, guilt-provoking, and difficult to disclose. Research in Family Relations found that the absence of support from friends makes these symptoms worse and can increase a mother’s risk of depression. Renee Cowan, M.D., who recently completed her OB/GYN residency in Washington, D.C., diagnosed and treated hundreds of women for miscarriage during that time. “Yet when I miscarried, I was totally unprepared for the sadness surrounding the loss, the anxiety surrounding being pregnant again, all of it,” she says. “I had drastically underestimated the emotional toll.”
For Esther Augenbaum, a mom-of-two in Silver Spring, Maryland, miscarriage was a source of deep embarrassment. “I felt like it was my fault,” she says. “I only told my husband and my parents, and the first thing my husband said was, ‘It’s a normal part of life and happens to so many people.’ I know he meant well and was trying to be my emotional rock, but all I heard was, ‘Stop crying—you’re overreacting.’ ” When she miscarried a second time, Augenbaum opened up to scores of friends. “Some told me the same thing had happened to them, which was very comforting. Sharing with them gave me so much more strength.” In the Obstetrics and Gynecology survey, 46 percent of respondents said that having friends who discussed their miscarriage with them helped them feel less isolated.
An expectant mother’s go-to support network is typically her family. But in the face of miscarriage, many women find that the greatest comfort and solace come from those who have also suffered a pregnancy loss—and frequently, that isn’t their partner, sibling, parent, or even a close confidant.
But it just might be one of their Facebook friends.
The Newsfeed Effect
At first glance, Anna Myers’s Facebook post looked a bit like a pregnancy announcement. But when her friends and relatives read closely, the truth was clear. The Indiana mom-of-four had posted a picture of her family’s hands holding an ultrasound photo, and alongside it, her sad news: “I would be 11 weeks tomorrow, but our sweet baby died a couple weeks ago.” The post received 200 supportive comments, including one in which a friend revealed her own miscarriage. “It turned out to be such a good way to get support. I don’t have family living nearby, so social media is one way I stay connected with my relatives and childhood friends,” says Myers. “I got so many responses and virtual hugs at once. I was able to heal a lot faster, and it helped that so many people found out so quickly.”
Many women say that social media gives them the control they need and desire when they tell their stories. “I didn’t have to say the words out loud,” says Crystal Henry, who lives in San Antonio. “I didn’t have to steady my voice or fight back tears. I could cry when I typed it out, and I then could have genuine reactions to people’s comments. I could stop reading comments that were hurtful, and I could reread comments that were helpful.”
But the decision to post isn’t easy for every mom. For some, the rapidly shifting social norms around miscarriage have left them feeling pulled in opposite directions. When Mikela Jewel Nelson, of Carson City, Nevada, miscarried at 14 weeks, she was cautioned about sharing the news too widely. “I had three other friends who were all due the same week as I was, and someone said to me, ‘Don’t scare people like that,’ ” says Nelson. “I took that under consideration, but what I was going through was a struggle, too, and as scary as it was, it was real.”
Opening up about her miscarriage was about more than just her experience. “Being quiet about miscarriage makes women who miscarry feel like a disgrace—like we’re not the same as everyone else,” Nelson says. Although she agrees that women who miscarry should think about other people’s feelings, she says, “People should care about ours too.”
Expecting a #Rainbowbaby
When a woman who has miscarried gets pregnant again, the anxiety can be overwhelming. Even though my own loss was early, I had no idea why I miscarried, so I constantly worried that a hormonal issue would cost me my next pregnancy. Karen Kelly, of Alexandria, Virginia, had a similar experience when she became pregnant with her son Ryan, who is now almost 2. “Everything was going perfectly, but I couldn’t help feeling like something bad was going to happen. As we passed certain milestones, the anxiety eased slightly, but it never went away.”
For Suzanne Delio, a mom of 2-year-old twins in Westchester, New York, losing two prior pregnancies gave her the gift of perspective. “Morning sickness? Awesome! Swollen feet? Great! Constant exhaustion? Loved it! Boys or girls? Who cares! I knew the alternative. I was floating on air for 35 weeks,” she says. “Of course, I was also very anxious. I never really exhaled that deep breath of relief until I held them both in my arms.”
In the end, I was lucky: My rainbow baby girl was delivered in October 2009 by a kind doctor wearing Halloween-themed scrubs. A little more than two years later, we welcomed our third daughter in the cold of January. With a busy schedule revolving around three school-age children, I rarely think about my early loss anymore. But there are days when I wonder: “Would it have been the boy we never had? What would he have been like?”
I have still not bought that mother’s ring, perhaps because a part of me has yet to accept that a September sapphire will never come my way. Yet, the more I share my story, the more freedom I feel and kinship I have with the many others who’ve suffered the loss of a pregnancy. As Dr. Cowan so wisely puts it: “These days, I’ll talk to anyone and everyone who wants to know about my miscarriage, because keeping this journey private doesn’t do anything for me or anyone else. I have no secrets.”